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Art Collectors: The Next Generation

Millennials see art as an extension of their personal brand and look for rising stars.

art collectors
Photo by Justin Barbin/EXPO CHICAGO 2015
As appeared in Wealth magazine

Art Collectors: The Next Generation

Millennials see art as an extension of their personal brand and look for rising stars.

It’s up for debate whether David Hockney meant to poke fun at his subjects in his 1968 portrait “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman),” but the painting of the couple in their sculpture garden plays up stereotypes about art collectors. The Weismans are older, obviously wealthy and, according to the painting’s label at the Art Institute of Chicago, “relentlessly stiff.”

The newest generation of art collectors is turning this stereotype on its head. At the same time, the art they collect and how they go about it reinforces the prevailing stereotypes of millennials as tech-savvy, connected, socially conscious and experiential more than materialistic.

Every Picture Tells a Story, Right?

As the unabashed selfie generation, millennials see art as an extension of their personal brand. “Part of why they collect is to express who they are,” says Mac MacLellan, executive vice president of Northern Trust’s Wealth Management division. “They want something uniquely their own with a story to which they can relate.”

Drawn to artwork that has meaning and reflects what matters to them, young buyers are amassing collections that are more personal and eclectic. Young collectors aren’t as eager to buy big-name artists or blue-chip works of art, deciding instead to discover the art world’s next rising star among under-the-radar or outsider artists. To succeed at bringing an unknown artist into the spotlight satisfies their altruistic urges and validates their tastes.

Millennials have never known a world without internet and mobile devices. Their comfort level with these technologies expands their quest geographically and otherwise. They venture beyond the mainstream and traditional art world.

Generally speaking, millennials have less disposable income than older collectors, which affects their behavior and choices, MacLellan says. Still in the wealth creation stage of life, they collect works of living artists because that’s what they can afford. “But they do their research and are discriminating. They’re on the lookout for affordable pieces that have the potential to increase in value,” MacLellan says.

Budget realities notwithstanding, young collectors seem more willing than established collectors to make riskier purchases. “All these behaviors and technologies are creating disruptive forces in the art world,” MacLellan says. “And those with a stake in it should pay attention.”

Building Collections Click by Click

One of the biggest shifts is the way works of art are debuted, discovered, bought and sold. Historically, collectors bought through galleries and auction houses, but the marketplace is moving online. “Young collectors aren’t at all hesitant to buy art without seeing it in person,” MacLellan says. “Going back 10 or 15 years, that would have been unimaginable.”

It’s been two years since Vogue magazine called Instagram the “world’s most talked-about new art dealer.” Other social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest, along with online marketplaces, are empowering a generation of digital art buyers. Social media also enables artists to share new work with followers, sometimes selling pieces quickly via PayPal.

Unlike galleries, online platforms can make buyers privy to the art creation process and connect them directly with artists, which millennials tend to prefer. “Having that relationship adds to their enjoyment of a piece by enriching the story they can talk about,” MacLellan says.

Implications for Established Collectors

Why should established collectors take note of these shifts in the market? As digital platforms continue to grow as a way of discovering art and artists, the influence of galleries as price setters and tastemakers may change over time. Since prestigious galleries connect a select few artists to a select few buyers, signaling to the art world that those artists and those collections are valuable, established collectors could face curation and valuation issues as the market continues to evolve, MacLellan says. Regardless of whether this is a preferred practice, many of today's emerging artists are eagerly selling as quickly as they can post to social media and may forgo seeking gallery representation or endorsement by the art world elite.

As a result of the ease of online sales, there is a greater potential among younger collectors to try to “flip” artwork or even entire collections, which would affect the market. Millennials, whose collections stay unsold and intact, may affect established collectors down the line because the former are more interested in personally relating to their art, while the latter build collections based on classifications such as medium, genre or time period.

“Established collectors need to be aware that their narrow focus may not be as trendy as it has been in the past,” MacLellan says.

Generational differences also have implications when an art collection passes down through the family. Even if art appreciation is an instilled value, the youngest generation might not share their elders’ passion for old master paintings. The purpose and eventual fate of such a collection needs to be discussed with all family members who have an interest in it.